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Kids don't mind seat belts in school buses, much

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FRANK J. SCHULTZ
November 1, 2009
— David Dubanowich says he actually likes seat belts on his school bus.

"It helps a lot because the kids sit down," the fifth-grader said as he boarded his bus home from Van Buren School last week.


Fourth-grader Billy McRoberts agreed.


Before the belts, "everybody was standing, and Mr. Wayne was just yelling his head off, like, ‘Sit down!'" Billy said.


Mr. Wayne is veteran bus driver Wayne Tatge, who was smiling and cheerful when a Gazette reporter rode along with him and his charges one day last week.


Billy and David said kids know they have to buckle up before the bus moves, so the issue of kids standing up has gone away.


Tatge walked up and down the narrow aisle to make sure all were buckled before he drove off, but it was impossible for him to check whether belts remained buckled during the ride.


Third-grader Liesl Yerke likes her new bus: "I like it with the seat belts because everybody is safe.


"But then, it does get crowded," Liesl said.


Liesl is one of those kids who can sit three to a seat. The benches are 39 inches wide and feature three seat belts. The middle belt is mounted much lower than the others and is rated for those weighing 70 pounds or less. Larger children sit two to a bench.


Kids said they didn't receive any instructions for using the belts, but then again, they know perfectly well how to use a seat belt, one of them pointed out. The belts are essentially the same as those used in any passenger car.


Tatge said the new bus has one drawback: It's impossible to see the smaller students, and only the tops of many of the taller children's heads can be seen from the front of the bus. But that's because of the new, taller padded seatbacks required by law, not because of the belts.


Padded seatbacks are designed to prevent injuries in an accident. The idea is that kids sit in padded compartments that absorb the shock of their bodies in an accident.


Statistics show that school buses are statistically safer than passenger cars, accounting for less than 1 percent of all traffic fatalities, despite the many miles they log each year.


Not everyone agrees with the compartment theory, however. The National Coalition for School Bus Safety, which favors seat belts, says the reason school buses are so safe is the professionalism of the drivers and the fact that the buses are so big and so yellow.


The coalition maintains that the standard should be how safe buses are when the rare accidents do occur, and it contends that buses fail on that count.


Nevertheless, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration doesn't endorse seat belts, and neither does the National Education Association. As a result, seat belts on school buses are rare nationwide.


Janesville School Board member Tim Cullen raised the issue locally and persuaded fellow board members to join him.


Janesville is believed to be the only place in Wisconsin where kids on those large, yellow buses are required to wear seat belts because it's the only place where the three-point belts are available.


Smaller buses, often used for transporting students with disabilities, have had lap belts for many years, as required by law, but no shoulder straps.


The Janesville School Board voted to outfit larger buses with the three-point belts after lengthy discussions last fall.


The board paid the Van Galder Bus Co., which holds the contract for Janesville school-bus service, to order belts when it replaced five buses this year. The cost to the district was $11,000 per bus.


A key concern has been whether students would obey their bus drivers and buckle up.


The district requires everyone to be belted before the bus moves. Bus drivers can report those who refuse to do so, but officials report no disciplinary issues related to seat belts this fall.


School board member Bill Sodemann said at a school board meeting last week that he has heard from students that not everyone remains buckled up all the time.


And on the Van Buren bus last week, kids pushed the limits of the definition of buckled up.


Several were seen tucking the shoulder strap under their arms. Some used the slack in their belts to swivel into the aisles so they could talk to their friends. One little girl could actually stand in the aisle with her lap belt still on.


The bus contained only elementary students. The Gazette did not observe the behavior of middle and high school students.


Some 1,500 Janesville students ride Van Galder buses to and from school each day. About 75 students ride buses with belts in the mornings. About 100 do so on the way home.


On any given day, the number of students riding a bus with seat belts on a field trip or to a sporting event can vary from 30 to 300, officials said.


The district has asked that Van Galder provide belted buses as much as possible for trips that require highway speeds.


There was apparently some confusion about this at the beginning of the year because a school official asked that belted buses not be sent to one of the schools.


"Some of the athletes stated that the seat belts were uncomfortable," said Steve Eichman, the district's manager of transportation. "The request was denied, and it has not been an issue."


Bus belt guidelinse


These are the Janesville School District's guidelines for the new school buses that feature seat belts:


-- The driver will not put the bus into motion until all students are seated, buckled and have visually indicated to the driver that they are buckled.


-- Middle school and high school students will be assigned two to a seat. Elementary students will be assigned three to a seat, with the older students occupying the window and aisle seats.


-- Students will be encouraged to help others sharing their seat to buckle their belts.


-- Students must remove their backpacks before putting on their seat belts.


-- If the driver needs to help a student buckle up, the driver must pull to the side of the road, turn on the flashers, turn off the bus, remove the keys and then provide assistance.


-- All seat belts will be buckled when the bus is in motion. If a student does not use the seat belt, a verbal and then a written warning will be given.


-- "The driver should use their written warnings wisely. We want to encourage the use of seat belts, not use this as a disciplinary tool. Suspensions of riding privileges may be used as part of the discipline process."


-- All parent contact regarding seat belt use must be documented and turned in to the safety manager for Van Galder Bus Co. and the district's manager of transportation.


Bus fleet may stay at five buses with belts, for now

Even if Janesville School Board members vote to pay for seat belts on more school buses next year, they might not get their wish.


The board embarked on a plan this year to convert the school bus fleet to seat-belted buses, adding seat belts when old buses are replaced with new ones.


The Van Galder Bus Co. bought five new buses this year, all of them with seat belts. But company officials say they have no great need to replace buses in the coming year.


Van Galder's school bus fleet is quite young, said Nancy Sonntag, safety director and school bus manager for the company.


Even so, if the school board wants more belted buses, Van Galder will try to comply and ask for permission from its corporate owner, Coach USA, Sonntag said.


Coach USA might not agree. The new buses cost about $99,000, and a new federal regulation to improve school-bus emissions will increase the price in the coming year to $105,000 or $110,000 for a seat-belted bus, Sonntag said.


"I don't think we can handle another half million dollars in debt," said Van Galder general manager Steve Van Galder.


The district paid Van Galder $55,000—$11,000 per bus—to add the three-point seat belts to the five buses this year.


The district administration recommended to the school board last week that the district work with Van Galder to get more buses with belts. The board took no immediate action.


Whatever happens, decisions must be made soon. Van Galder says it needs to order buses around the first of the year if the buses are to be ready for the start of school in September.



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